Assistant planner to focus on vacation rentals

BAR HARBOR — The town has a new assistant planner set to begin work Aug. 19, Planning Director Michele Gagnon said, and he “is definitely going to work on vacation rentals.”

Steve Fuller will be joining the Planning Office as Assistant Planner on Aug. 19. According to Planning Director Michele Gagnon, he will focus on vacation rentals. Funding for the new position is offset by vacation rental fees. ISLANDER FILE PHOTO

Steve Fuller will come to Bar Harbor from the City of Ellsworth’s planning office, where he worked with Gagnon before she became planning director here last year.

“The office is ready. We’re waiting,” Gagnon told the Islander on Monday. “But it’s a tough place to start.”

According to Code Enforcement Officer Angela Chamberlain, vacation rental applications, renewals, and enforcement issues have taken a lot of the staff’s time recently.

As of July 1, Chamberlain reported to Town Council last month, 268 vacation rental units had renewed their permits this year. Her office has also issued 99 new vacation rental permits, making the total number of legally permitted vacation rentals to be 367.

That’s a lot less than 571, which was the estimate of “unique units” in town currently being used for vacation rentals. The number was provided to the town in December by Host Compliance, the Seattle-based company that offers vacation rental enforcement services. It may include some properties that don’t require a vacation rental permit; some bed and breakfasts, for example, list their rooms on vacation rental websites like Airbnb.

But the number of registered units is on the rise. As of July 1, an additional 54 new applications were pending, and 32 applications had failed due to inspection.

“I think there are still lots and lots out there that haven’t registered,” Chamberlain told the Town Council at their July 16 meeting. “We still get at least one [application] a day.”

In December 2018, the Town Council voted to require landlords to register their short-term rental units annually, setting the annual fee at $250.

Town officials expected the new annual fee to raise $120,000 in annual revenue.

In his new position as assistant planner, Fuller will compile vacation rental data, Gagnon said. These will include creating a map to show where registered units are, and search platforms where short-term renters advertise, to find unregistered units. “Steve is strong in that: organizing, tabulating, presenting data.”

Knight said that Fuller will be doing some of the data-gathering work that Host Compliance would have done if the town were already working with them. Last year, the council voted to allocate $28,000 for vacation rental enforcement, but it has yet put the work out to bid.

Gagnon said, “We’re not ready [to work with Host Compliance]; we’ve got so much to do just getting organized. We haven’t even touched that.”

“We just need staff in the planning and code office,” Knight told town councilors this week.

The $55,000 appropriated to pay for the new assistant planner position was approved by voters at Town Meeting in June.

Knight said the budget increase was offset by an “increase in revenue estimated from vacation rental fees, so it did not affect the property tax.” In the future, the position will be included in the budget so it “is not affected if rental fees fall short,” he said.

In addition to working on vacation rentals, Fuller will also work with the Planning Board and be a “point of contact for Design Review Board,” Gagnon said. In addition, he will “work with applicants to be ready to go before the Planning Board, and focus on citizen participation.”

“I know Steve, how he works,” Gagnon continued. “We can use him in many ways to make this machine as effective as it can be. I’m quite excited. I think it’s going to work well.”

Before joining the staff of the city of Ellworth, Fuller worked as a reporter for the Islander’s sister newspaper, The Ellsworth American.

Becky Pritchard
Former Islander reporter Becky Pritchard covered the town of Bar Harbor and was a park ranger in Acadia for six seasons.
Becky Pritchard

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